Before a Sunday afternoon tour of the Suntory beer factory, I visited the main shrine in Nagaoka. Under the torii gate entrance, a row of boys in baseball uniforms were standing holding a collection box.
“Onegai Shimasu” (Please contribute) they appealed in unison to passers by. The baseball boys were collecting money for the earthquake relief effort.
Each time money went into the box, the boys bowed and doffed their caps. Their kantoku (coach) stood behind and regularly lectured them to ensure they behaved correctly. They seemed more like boy scouts than baseballers.
How baseball became popular in Japan was long a mystery to me. In my mind, baseball was all about which lardass player could smack the ball the furthest, and which lardass fan could eat the most hotdogs.
Looking at the slender average Japanese frame, I assumed their teams would be second-rate, and for a long time, I did not take the Japanese game seriously.
I was wrong. Baseball in Japan has many special characteristics, but frailty and ineptitude are not among them.
The high-level of dedication in matches and training is unbelievable. In contrast to US baseball, many Japanese teams value the bunt, when you just tap your bat to ball – sacrificing yourself so a teammate can get home.
In training sessions, a player vomiting blood is a welcome sign of commitment, rather than an indication of a heavy night at the bar. And as for eating hot dogs quickly, that is a whole different sport.
After finishing their shift collecting money, the Nagaoka baseball team marched up to the main shrine. The players stopped in a row in front of the entrance and bowed in unison to the residing kami (spirit). Well-mannered and organised, they also seemed highly-motivated, and all without a hotdog in sight.